This autumn at Holy Trinity Brussels, we are going through a series on basic questions of faith and Christianity. Last week, I started things off with “Why God”. This week, we heard a sermon on “Why Sin”. So, for the next few months, I will be posting responses and thoughts on these topics every Monday. So, for today…why sin?
“Why sin” is a question that cannot stand alone; so in isolating it as a question, there is some injustice being done. We will resolve this next week with “Why Jesus” and preview that response in the final parts of this post. “Why sin” is a question that invites many different approaches. Some responders want to go back to a beginning of the human experience of sin — historically speaking. They develop complicated interpretations of Genesis, nuancing and decoding what happened, if it happened, to whom it happened, etc. Others approach sin from a sociological point-of-view, describing the effects of human beings’ mistreatment of each other and the root causes of it. In that stream of thought, René Girard is one of personal favourites. There are dozens sub-questions and sub-categories: are we talking about original sin? to whom is sin against, God, neighbour, both? ourselves? what about the cycle of sin? what is the relationship between law and sin? As is obvious, questions abound.
Questions abound because the whole language of sin is complicated. There is something fundamental in the human experience that the idea of sin expresses — guilt or shame or an acknowledgement that I have done or thought or said something that I should not have. Sin is not merely a notion; it is an attempt at a description of a transcendental human experience, i.e., one that formats how we live and interact with the world around us. And this is not new. Throughout the Old Testament, the language of sin evolves and a whole host of metaphors are used. Sin is viewed as a weight that must be removed and placed on another (the mechanism of sacrifice and scapegoating is at play here), and there is the metaphor of debt that is used (someone must pay to equalise, to balance the scales of justice). There is a host of other metaphors or analogies used as well, but these are the main two — weight or burden and debt, the economics of sin. These are useful metaphors or mechanisms to understand the experience, but they are not the only ones. I want to turn to Girard, whom I mentioned earlier, to develop the idea of sin on a transcendental level, that is, on a level that formats the human experience and human life.
It is common today to speak of sin as a separation or a divide that must be bridged. This is a helpful description, but again it is not the only one. In a highly individualistic society, we are far more comfortable with separation (individuation) than the generations to whom the letters, books, and poems of the Bible were first written and the idea of separation used. We live in a society far from that of even the Reformers, who narrowed in on this idea of separation. What metaphor would have purchase with us? The metaphor of debt? Or does that have too much baggage? Judicial ones definitely seem to also have baggage. What about the notion of violence? Girard conceives of sin as acts perpetuating a cycle of reciprocal violence, of stemming from some sort of transcendental violence. Sin propels this violence, which is much, much more than physical — it is emotional, cultural, ideological, and psychological violence. Sin is this violence. It is a violence that begets violence, which is why the ancient scapegoat system is present the majority of cultures (in all in one form or another, argues Girard). It is there to stem violence, to create a way to release violence and restore the bonds of a community. Violence is something we can see, and we can know sin as violence. We see it on the news. We experience in our workplaces and in our schools, with bullying, abuse, and other forms of social violence such as gossip and slander. We see it in our homes. Sin as violence perpetuates a transcendental violence, but what is that?
Transcendental violence might be called ‘original sin,’ but what does it consist of exactly? Eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis? Perhaps, but I would argue that it is the finite trying to grasp the infinite, of human beings trying to be God. The finite tries to become the infinite apart from the infinite and so produces violence. We see this every day. We set ourselves or others up as little gods. We vote for a saviour. We attempt to overcome our limited, perspectival consciousness through various means and technologies, all the while forgetting the one who has invited us into an infinite life. We want that life on our terms; we want to be the creators of ourselves, to overcome our contingency and finitude. This is an act of violence. We grasp at something that we are not. We draw borders and boundaries that seem to empower us, but they are the borders of a kingdom of death. Why sin? Because we all want to be God, in our own way.
We see the contrast of this in Philippians 2. Jesus, being infinite, being God, does not grasp equality with God. He does not take on the nature of the infinite that is his right. Instead, he becomes finite. He takes on the form of a slave; he submits to death. God dies. God dies, so that death may die and we may live in the new life God brings. Sin is violence that leads to death, but in God our finitude is broken and we live in the transcendental life of God through Jesus Christ. But this is already previewing next week.
I want to close by pointing out something that Paul writes in Romans and throughout his letters in the New Testament. The power of the law is death. And there is no sin without the law. The law brings sin and sin brings death. We have lived under the law and under sin. Our finite natures cannot hope to keep the law and not to sin. We fail. None of our moralities are good enough. Morality itself is linked to the law and so to sin and so to death. “Who will save me from this body of death?” Paul asks. Who will save me from this nature of finitude running up against the an infinity that I try to grasp and fail. The Infinite who became finite. The God who died, taking on all our violence and all our attempts to grasp the Divine — in order to bring life, in order to bring grace, in order to bring himself back into our world. And where sin has abounded, may grace so much more abound.